"I think marrying who you want is a right no man should have anything to do with. It's a God-given right," said Mildred Loving to ABC News 40 years ago.
A demure young woman from Caroline County, Va., Mildred Jeter Loving never desired attention or publicity. Least of all did she ever imagine she would enter the history books when she married her childhood sweetheart, Richard Loving.
It was 1958. Mildred, a black woman, and Richard, a white man, drove 80 miles to Washington, D.C., to exchange their wedding vows. Shortly after returning home to Virginia, the couple was arrested in the middle of the night for violating the state's law against interracial marriage.
"I guess it was about 2 a.m.," Mildred Loving said in a 1967 ABC News report. "I saw the lights, you know, and I woke up and it was the policeman standing beside the bed and he told us to get out and that we was under arrest."
That night marked the start of a legal battle that eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, the landmark decision in Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage across the country.
"I cannot believe it's been 40 years," Loving said in a recent interview with ABC News. "Things have changed for the better." Now 67 years old and a widow, with nine grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, she stills calls Caroline County home.
The Loving decision struck down anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia and 15 other states. In doing so, it put an end to the last piece of state-sanctioned segregation in the country.
Yet for decades after the decision, many states left the unenforceable laws on the books — South Carolina did not remove its prohibitive clause until 1998, and Alabama held on to its ban until 2000. Clearly, even today, a gap remains between what is officially permitted and what is universally accepted. Unsurprisingly, some interracial couples say despite social progress, they still get looks, comments and even hostile threats.
"I never had any hostility towards the sheriff or the commonwealth," said Loving of the night she and her husband were arrested. "They were only doing their job, but I'm glad it happened. If they never prosecuted us, none of this would have come to terms. So maybe it was meant to be."
And with a last name perfect for a lawsuit about love, perhaps it was indeed. According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are now 2.3 million interracial couples in America — approximately seven times the number there were in 1970.
Even Loving seems almost baffled by this growth. "Jim Webb, the congressman from my state, married an Asian lady," she said, referring to the junior senator from Virginia and his wife, Hong Li Webb. "It's still surprising to see it," she said. "But they're human like you and me."
In the last 40 years, the Loving decision has become symbolically important to an ever expanding group: from interracial couples and their mixed race children, to transracial adoptees and their families, to members of the gay, lesbian and transgendered community who are now lobbying for their own marriage rights.